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Alan Catches The Vapors October 30, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
1 comment so far

Since the collapse of our financial markets, I have been ranting (here and here) about the “moral philosophy” of conservatism that assumes that the wealthy and successful are inherently virtuous because they are wealthy and successful. Last week we witnessed this “philosophy” in mid-befuddlement.

Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and one of the architects of the deregulated, overleveraged environment that caused the credit crisis, was tesifying before a house committee.

Poor Alan. His economic models didn’t allow for the possibility that greedy people left to their own devices would undermine the system on which they depend. Greenspan said that he was “in a state of shocked disbelief” that banks did not properly analyze the risk of loaning money to unqualified borrowers, and he acknowledged that the failure of self-regulation was “a flaw in the model”.

“I was going for 40 years or more on the perception that it was working well”, he lamented.

So let me get this straight. For the past 40 years, we have watched inequality explode, the real income of the middle class fall, government rescues of a variety of financial institutions, entire industries shipped overseas replaced by an economy based on debt, massive market failures in Chile, Argentina, Asia, and Mexico, and wholesale corruption exemplified by Enron. Despite all of this evidence that unregulated markets fail, Greenspan finally wakes up when the United States is on the verge of economic collapse.

The best explanation of this fefuddlement is that, following his mentor Ayn Rand, he really believes that people become wealthy and sucessful because they are morally superior; and being morally superior that would never seek ways of absconding with enormous profit while shoving the risk off on the American taxpayer. It is only plebian scoundrels that need laws and regulation.

Perhaps this recent episode in our economic history will put this “moral philosophy” to rest. But the prospects for that are not so good. Rand, of course, can no longer spew her nonsense; she has been replaced by the much more charismatic Joe the Plumber who is dispensing this moral philosophy on the campaign trail for that other fount of moral wisdom, Sarah Palin and her sidekick John McCain.


Punishment or Protection? The Case of Kevin Coe October 27, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

When a person has been convicted of a crime, sentenced, and has completed his or her punishment, we are all accustomed to thinking that such a person has paid his or her debt to society—under the assumption that we believe in the righteousness of punishment in the first place. Some don’t. Some believe that punishment is an inappropriate and oppressive enforcement of society’s values on an individual, based on a culture-specific values system. Some believe that punishment is justified if it helps rehabilitate the offender, and/or keep the public safe; and some believe that punishment is, and ought to be, a form of just retribution. Some believe that punishment is supposed to make the offender feel bad, and the rest of us feel good. We’ve touched on this debate before, but here is a new twist: the case of serial rapist Kevin Coe, Spokane, WA.

Once there was a young man called Fred Coe. He had a doting mother and a father connected to the local power structure, being a newspaper editor. Fred didn’t like his name, so he changed it to Kevin. And as Kevin Coe he became locally infamous a quarter of a century ago, as “The South Hill Rapist,” stalking young women in the parks, forcing a gloved hand or an oven mitt into their mouth, and raping them. When he was caught (and the rapes stopped), a dozen rape cases were piled up against him, but due to legal procedural issues he only faced one rape trial at the end—of which he was found guilty, and sentenced to 25 years. You can read the story in an excellent true-crime book, Son, A Psychopath and His Victims, by Jack Olsen, and here is an update in the Spokesman-Review. There’s an additional angle to it: His mother spent time in prison for having tried to hire a hit man to kill the local judge and prosecutor…Coe never admitted any guilt, and never sought parole. He served his 25 years precisely so he could walk out of prison without having to report to any parole officers, and two years ago the 25 years were up. The local community was worried; Coe claimed he wouldn’t return to Spokane, but since he never showed remorse, had displayed sociopathic behavior patterns (read Son), and had given indications of being mentally addicted to violent sexual behavior, Spokane prosecutors were motivated  to pursue a new WA law: permanent incarceration in a mental facility. This was not intended as an additional punishment (so it is not unconstitutional), but as a means of protecting the public from a person who is likely to reoffend. It is roughly the same philosophy that is the foundation of the various versions of Megan’s Law (registration of sex offenders): prediction of future behavior based on past tendencies. As a result, a jury recently found that Coe presents a danger to the community, so he is now locked up again, in a mental facility, for an indefinite length of time. His victims are elated that he will not be allowed to walk free. The community feels vindicated, finally. Having followed the case for many years, I have to agree with the verdict—but as a moral philosopher, I had to ask myself some questions, and now I will pose them to you: What concept of justice are we operating with here? A straightforward utilitarian protection of the public? A further attempt to rehabilitate the unrepentant? An ad hoc attempt at justice that bypasses past legal hurdles—or punishment for something the offender hasn’t yet done? Or perhaps it really is a form of revenge? Are we just playing semantics when we claim that further incarceration of offenders who are likely to reoffend isn’t “punishment”?  Does the end justify the means? Lock’em up for the sake of society, or let’em loose on society for the sake of a moral principle? I certainly don’t want to imply that a good man has been railroaded, because I think he is as vicious as they come, and as manipulative. A huge amount of written pages authored by Coe while in prison have been obtained by The Spokesman-Review, from letters and legal briefs to a pornographic novel, and they give a clear picture of a smart and guilty man dancing as fast as he can. Take a look, and judge for yourself. In the real world, principles and pragmatic assessments have to be balanced (which is why we had the discussion about Susan LeFevre and mercy), and I think Coe’s case is an example of just that. But being an old deontologist, my concern is that pragmatic assessments may win out over principles in cases that truly involve the risk of people being railroaded for the sake of the community…

Melamine and Responsibility October 22, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Some of us have been taught, long ago, that “Everything is political.” I tend to think so sometimes myself, although I do try to avoid falling into the “suppressed correlative” fallacy (remember that one, dear students of mine?). So, knowing that this news item, too, has a political aspect, I offer it to you as an option to think beyond political polarization in these heated times:


Yes, there is melamine news! The latest victims are 1500 Chinese racoon dogs who have died from kidney failure within the past two months, after the melamine milk connection was revealed. They were apparently given melamine-laced feed, and an autopsy of 12 dogs revealed that their kidney stones consisted of melamine. These dogs are bred, in China, for their fur (the kind that adorns some parka collars. If I remember correctly, a major U.S. clothing outlet got in trouble a few years ago when it turned out they sold clothing with dog-fur decorations—originating in China.). So these dogs are bred to be killed and aren’t anyone’s pets, and the primary outrage here, from the dog breeders, is probably the loss of profit and not the loss of companions. (Another nice topic to ponder.)

According to the AP, a cover-up attempt was made:

Zhang said the company that produces the animal feed is in talks with breeders in Xishan, the village in Liaoning province where the dogs died, about providing compensation and has pressured them not to talk to the media.

Zhang did not give the company’s name but the newspaper report said the feed was produced by Harbin Hualong Feed Co. The company refused to comment Monday, saying officials were unavailable because they were in a meeting.

What makes this worth noting is that this is not anecdotal evidence, as is the melamine deaths of thousands of American pets last year—this is a large group of animals dying within a defined location and a short span of time, with a documented cause of death. In addition, a lion cub and two orangutan babies at a Shanghai Zoo were fed melamine-tainted milk last month, and developed kidney stones.

            So are we beating a dead horse here, in a manner of speaking? Don’t we already know all this? Here’s what is dangerous about our thirst for news these days: We only pay attention if it is new news—not an ongoing story that needs to be kept in focus. But if you don’t care about raccoon dogs, lion cubs and orangutans, how about kids in Alabama eating Chinese melamine cookies? Or San Francisco kids eating melamine candy? The Chinese cookie brand “Koala’s March” has been taken off the shelves in Alabama, because the cookies were found to contain melamine, but as of Oct.16, the FDA had not issued a nationwide warning, and there has been no general recall. Oct.1 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a warning about cookies from the same manufacturer.

In addition, according to the Los Angeles Times,

Last month, the California Department of Public Health warned people not to eat White Rabbit candy imported from China by a San Francisco Bay Area company. Some candies tested by officials contained melamine levels of as much as 520 parts per million.

            In a previous thread, Deli made a good point: that food additives for profit, such as gluten, reveal essentially the same moral issue, and lack of concern and respect for the consumer. I would agree with that point in principle, but I want to add that the difference in degree really matters—and whether the further consequences (a previous good Moria point) can be called unintended.

            So the bottom line is, what to do? Obviously we can’t rely on the notion that if it is on our shelves, then it is safe. Guess what? We’ve never been able to rely on that, most of us have just been lucky. There is the high road, the appeal to our political officials to make some strong points regarding the food safety of this nation, for us and our pets and livestock—once the political dust storm has lifted and revealed a landscape of change, whichever direction it goes. This is the L.A. Times’ solution:

The answer is more oversight — not only by the Chinese but also by our own market watchdogs. We need an FDA with both the resources and the wherewithal to keep consumers safe, just as we need financial authorities who can protect us from Wall Street’s greedier impulses.

But then there is the low, humble road of personal responsibility (which, by the way, does not preclude caring for one’s neighbor): Read those ingredients. Be aware of what you buy. Be aware of what you support with your purchase. Bake your own d*mn cookies. In the end, we’re still depending on luck—because we can’t be informed about everything, especially when we’re being lied to. But it won’t hurt to increase our individual level of awareness.

A Potent Progressivism October 19, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.

One of our frequent and insightful commenters, Moriae, has repeatedly charged me with using what he refers to as “over-the-top invective” in my descriptions of conservative candidates and conservative philosophy.  (See the comments here and here) If I understand his view correctly, he thinks my arguments are unreasonable because they are based on emotion, are devoted to attacking an opponent’s motives rather than analyzing their positions, and express excessive certainty regarding political and ethical matters.


I do routinely accuse conservatives of embracing ignorance, authoritarianism, selfishness, and dishonesty. Although I don’t think anything I have said is “over-the-top”, I intend my descriptions to be denunciations—whether they are abusive (and thus invective) of course depends on whether the descriptions are deserved. Since I think they are deserved, I don’t think such descriptions are abusive.


I won’t rehearse my arguments here—see my previous posts for the arguments. But I think Moriae’s criticism raises some important political and philosophical issues that deserve a more comprehensive treatment. The issues have to do with the nature of justification, the nature of arguments in general and political arguments in particular, and the proper political rhetoric for advancing liberalism.


The issue of justification is far too complex to take up in a blog post. Suffice it to say that I focus on motives because I think the justification of an action in part depends on its motive. Attacking motives, to the extent they can be discerned, is part of a critical analysis of any action evaluated from a moral point of view. And on this point, the Kantian and Aristotelian traditions would agree. (So would the motive utilitarians).


My particular choices of descriptors for conservative “values” are a response to a dilemma that liberals have confronted for many years. Liberals must find an adequate response to the culture wars, inaugurated and advanced by Republicans, which have become influential precisely through impugning the moral credentials of liberalism. Their claim (I hesitate to call them arguments) is that liberals are bereft of moral conscience because they have adopted relativism as their governing philosophy, because they lack religious commitment, are anti-American, or because they give in to indulgent desires that disconnect them from the realities and commitments of ordinary life. (Liberals are alleged to lack “small-town” values)


This attack has been carried out in churches, on talk radio, and in the media, and it has been central to Republican political campaigns at least since Nixon’s 1972 campaign, with tentacles reaching back to the McCarthy era.


The audience for Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, and their ilk is huge, and vast swaths of this country run around repeating their nonsense as if it were gospel. (In fact they usually claim it is to be found in the gospel.)  But more importantly, it is repeated by mainstream politicians who hold real power, and the McCain campaign is no exception. Republicans run for office by declaring war on half the population of the U.S. (For recent examples see this and this.)


These claims about “evul libruls” are nonsense. But this attack poses particular problems for liberalism. Liberalism has a history of pluralism and tolerance toward a variety of life styles and belief systems. This tolerance is born of skepticism. Traditionally, liberalism has claimed that any account of the good is subjective and, thus, many issues of moral significance are private matters to be decided by individuals. On matters that cannot be considered private, modern liberalism holds out hope that, through our common capacity to reason, we can find enough shared beliefs so that we can agree on some general moral principles to govern all of us despite our differences.


Thus, for the past 30 years, in the face of conservative attacks, liberals have responded as liberals do–marshaling evidence, making rational arguments, advocating tolerance, and when in power providing effective management of the economy and foreign policy. Inspired by Deweyan calls to reason and a commitment to pluralism, liberals have given credence to conservative premises and compromised their principles when necessary to sustain a political consensus about the direction of the country. (The emergence of Democratic centrism in the institution of the Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton’s triangulation strategy during his administrations, and the broad tendency to focus on issues of economic growth rather than moral values are examples of Democrats seeking common ground with conservatives.)


But that approach didn’ t work!


Despite Clinton’s largely successful presidency, with the election of Bush for two terms, we have watched the political center of gravity lurch further and further toward the right and the political polarization of this country become more and more extreme. (If Obama wins in the upcoming election that may signal a sea change in political attitudes; but I doubt it. Obama’s victory will have more to do with the utter collapse of our economy than a fundamental re-thinking of values on the part of the public.)


Why does the liberal call to “come let us reason together” fail to maintain a moderate liberal consensus? It fails because conservatism is a radical philosophy–theocratic, anti-government (except when the military or surveillance is involved), authoritarian, and virulently individualistic. It has abandoned reason in favor of end-times theology, creationism and Biblical fundamentalism; it ignores science whenever it is incompatible with the Republican agenda; it has abandoned the idea that government must serve the common good; and it has elevated mediocrity to a virtue.


Liberalism’s aim to find shared premises from which to reason toward a governing consensus is thus bound to fail. Liberalism and modern conservatism have almost nothing in common. This incommensurability of discourses is not, by the way, a liberal invention. The conservative writer Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote a book in 1999 called “One Nation, Two Cultures” in which she argues for just such a claim. As Obama said in an interview recently “there is an entire industry now, an entire apparatus, designed to perpetuate this cultural schism, and it’s powerful.”


In such a political climate, rational persuasion by itself will be ineffective.


Furthermore, there is ample evidence coming out of a variety of disciplines that shows that rationality is dependent on emotions. The old philosophical view that to be rational is to suspend emotions, desires, and inclinations and reason impartially has largely been replaced by a much more subtle analysis of the mind that views reason and emotion to be intimately connected.


Finally, much recent work in psychology is demonstrating that political beliefs are not based on evidence or logic and not influenced by argument, but instead rest on a variety of value commitments and unconscious preferences that rarely respond to reasons by themselves. (See the work of Drew Westen, George Lakoff, and Jonathan Haidt) Reason must be supplemented with emotional appeals that tap into underlying values and attitudes that frame our understanding of economics and other policy matters.


Given our political situation and these facts about political psychology, how should liberals respond to conservative attacks? Moriae would have us wallow in ethical and political uncertainty and patiently try to reason with conservatives to try and find common ground. That is a rational strategy when moral questions are genuinely opaque and there is someone to negotiate with. But that doesn’t define our situation. I am intimately familiar with the history of debate about the foundation of ethics and I know the radical uncertainty of many moral claims. (In fact I devoted an entire book to investigating this uncertainty). But this uncertainty about foundations does not entail that no moral claims can be made with confidence or that any claim by some nutcase must be taken seriously because the truth is unknowable. The fact that we have no single theory of the right or the good does not entail that we can’t point to some very bad answers to ethical and political questions.


So what to do?


Liberals first must wake up to the fact that we are in a culture war and that conservatism aims to destroy liberalism (which is their stated aim) and the many elements in American life that are based on liberalism. Compromise and horse-trading is of course necessary in politics but we shouldn’t capitulate before the negotiations begin by assuming the truth of conservative premises. There is nothing in modern conservatism of value to us.


Second, although, in our current moment, the economy is on everyone’s mind, moral values cannot be pushed under the rug. Economic judgment is driven by value judgments just as foreign policy judgments are. Thus, liberals must take back our moral vocabulary. The first step in that process is to relearn how to call a lie a lie and identify ignorance, selfishness, and wickedness when we see it. Instead of pretending respect for nonsense in order to find agreement, express tolerance, or poach a few votes, we should highlight at every turn the moral bankruptcy of conservatism. Of course, moral criticism is not in itself a strategy or a policy. But liberals are full of policies. What we have not done in the recent past is to take back the moral arguments from conservatives that abuse the very notion of morality


Thirdly, in the long run, we have to redefine Americans’ understanding of moral character by articulating a distinctly liberal moral identity. Too many Americans have a tendency to view a person of character as someone with a small mind and a big gun. The liberal task in the 21st Century is to change that equation.


This change cannot be accomplished by mealy-mouthed platitudes or the deployment of euphemisms that take the edge off liberal critiques of conservatism.



Making Stoopid October 9, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.

Republicans love ignorance. They assert that offshore oil drilling will bring immediate reductions in gas prices, despite the overwhelming consensus among oil experts that it won’t. They deny human-induced climate change despite overwhelming evidence of the threat. They claim that tax cuts pay for themselves despite ample evidence to the contrary.

And John McCain’s policy prescriptions are incoherent. His solution to an economy in recession and starved for investment is a government spending freeze that would kill off the only source of economic stimulus available, but then he proposes a government program to buy up mortgages that would give away billions of taxpayer dollars to failed investment banks. His solution to the health care crisis is to pay people with good insurance to buy inferior insurance while slashing spending on Medicare. His solution to an over-extended military is to ratchet up tensions with adversaries throughout the world. And his campaign, at this point, consists of repeating vicious lies about Obama even after they have been thoroughly exposed as lies.

Of course, all of this follows eight years of similarly clueless decision-making and mendacity. Indifference to the truth is the central plank in the Republican’s strategy for holding on to power.

Given this indifference to truth, McCain’s choice of Palin as his running mate and her enormous popularity among grass-roots conservatives should be no surprise. Her ignorance and incompetence not only don’t count against her—they qualify her for office. She is after all, ordinary like the rest of us—that is her attraction.


Why this embrace of ignorance and ordinariness?


There are two beliefs that are deeply embedded in the American psyche that explain the attractions of ignorance and “average Joeism”. One is the belief that questions about how to live are not susceptible to rational assessment. Our desires may be irrational but they are ours and we have a right to pursue them regardless of how irrational they might be. The second idea is that, if the will is strong enough, any obstacle can be overcome. So if the world is not how we want it, we can reshape it to conform to our wishes. “Simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to problems” are our birthright. The will is sufficient; knowledge and wisdom are irrelevant. And of course anybody can be strong-willed; it takes no special talent. (Thanks to Paul Krugman for the quote)


The biographies of both conservative candidates reflect the salience of the will in conservative moral philosophy.

Palin is a working class girl who, through force of will, moved up from hockey mom to the PTA, to mayer, governor, and VP candidate. She’s tough because she shoots wolves and caribou and can skin their hides. She’s disciplined enough to raise 5 kids and take care of a Downs syndrome baby while pursuing a high powered career.

McCain’s story reflects a similar belief in the magical powers of the will. The son of a well-known and respected Navy Admiral, McCain was a reckless, Navy fly-boy, a below average student and a poor pilot who lost three aircraft in accidents before he was shot down over Viet Nam. Through sheer determination, he survived 5 ½ years in a prison camp. Upon his celebrated return, the now famous son of an Admiral used his celebrity to launch a successful political career in which he has managed to convince many people in the press and the public that his years as a POW tells us all we need to know about his moral character.

 Both stories are unsullied by intelligence, wisdom, competence, or compassion. They are about discipline, determination, and ambition—having the strength of will to make the world conform to their wishes.

Candidates who have little interest in our adversaries abroad or the details of policy at home are authentic, regular folks–real Americans–because they are ruled by their gut, not their head. Ignorance insures that inconvenient facts will not get in the way of the self getting what it wants.


Contemporary conservative moral philosophy is based on the idea that the will, not the intellect, should rule the self. The victory of good over evil will go to the strongest; individuals must show toughness and discipline to win the victory, so they must be ruled by authorities and institutions that enforce discipline such as the father in the household, fundamentalist religion, the military, corporate hierarchies, and the competition of free markets; strength flows only from the use of force, and persuasion is ineffective because it requires reason; humanity rules over nature which can be reshaped to fit our needs so we don’t need no stinkin’ environmentalists.

This is pure, unadulterated authoritarianism and it reveals the extent to which conservative moral philosophy rests on strength of will as the only virtue. Having coherent ideas is beside the point. This is why conservatives prefer to run campaigns on “values”, “character”, and identity politics—the message that “real men don’t think” resonates with lots of Americans.

Commentators rail about the dumbing down of America and like to blame it on the media. But there is a reason why we have the media (and the political campaigns) we have. Our fundamental beliefs and the powerful tradition of anti-intellectualism make us susceptible to these media messages.

As American institutions collapse all around us, perhaps some Americans are waking up to the fact that moral character requires more than strength of will. Solving our problems will require good decisions, sound ideas, and a conception of moral character that includes wisdom and care as well as strength.

Conservatism cannot respond to the complexities of modern life. If America is to regain its bearings it will not be enough to defeat conservatives in this election—this strain in American life must be crushed.